Alison Glinn talks to the widely acclaimed author.
I was to meet Jeanette Winterson at the Random House offices in London. Ushered up to the eighth floor and into the conference room with its 180-degree view, I was greeted by the sight of Jeanette standing, looking out over London, for all world like a captain on the bridge of a great ship. Turning she greeted me; charming, courteous and in complete control of the situation. Her childhood years in the Pentecostal Church have stood her in good stead for the media circus that every author now faces. How does she feel about going out on the road to do these events, tours and promotions? ‘I love that, I was brought up in a Gospel Tent so it’s an ideal environment for me and I’m very good at it.’ She has kept her evangelical approach to literary reading, intending that everyone goes away with something important and is converted to a JW readership.
Promotion has changed a lot in the twenty-seven years since Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was published. It’s more public, more conspicuous and Jeanette admits that she has an unnatural advantage as people like live events and she enjoys doing them. ‘Most writers probably do need to go and have lessons in how to do it as it’s a different thing on a platform and you can’t expect everyone to be brought up in a Gospel Tent!’ Things do seem to be moving more that way as people like both the intimacy of a book but crave the shared experience of a book group or event. ‘A book is now fulfilling two almost opposite functions, it’s still intimacy, it’s still lover’s talk, it’s still what you do on your own; that private relationship between the page and the mind, and then there’s the jamboree where everybody goes and joins together like an evangelical meeting!
Shared identity, shared experience, wanting to come the together. Then chatting about it afterwards whether on Twitter or on Facebook or in emails to your friends. That is a shift and that is not going to go away.’
Jeanette has seen people texting and tweeting in her readings, even holding their phones up to record the session and stream it later through their computer. ‘That’s fine, and even if we thought that it wasn’t fine we’d be like King Canute and the tide would be coming in!’ she laughs. ‘Shut up and enjoy it and make the most of it,’ is her advice. ‘One of the things I’ve learnt as I’ve got older is not to waste energy on things you cannot change, there’s quite a lot you can change and there’s only so much energy that you have, so much time you have, so it’s better to direct it towards the positive than to waste it in pointless negatives.’
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Winterson On Reading Orlando
‘Enjoy it, you’ll have a lovely time. She [Virginia Woolf] does that wonderful thing where in the first line of the novel “He, for there could be no doubt of his sex” and then of course you spend the entire novel doubting his sex. It’s very clever, impudent and exuberant and I love that. It’s a wonderful book.’
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I was interested to see that Oranges was listed under Fiction in the list of her books at the front of Why
Be Happy? whereas in the library it was filed under autobiography. When I mention this to her she says that that is ‘fascinating. It used to be listed under Cookery so that’s an improvement!’ Since all writers use their own lives to inform their writing I wondered at what point it became autobiography? ‘I don’t think it ever does. I have a controversial reading of this. I don’t call Why Be Happy? a memoir. I don’t call it an autobiography because I missed out twenty-five years in the middle. I think of it as an experiment with experience,
a cover version, a re-reading.
I find that we are currently unhelpfully obsessed with
a tick-box reality TV world. Reality TV being the most artificial and constructed idea of any and yet this is offered up as somehow truth and authenticity. It’s not. I was amused to find that the latest from cognitive psychology
is that, of course, memory is not fixed. Memory is an act of narrative.’ Jeanette is surprised and appalled that science has just caught up with what we all know, ‘can somebody get Proust off the shelf please, now! Freud knew that, it’s why he was one of the grand masters of narrative, he knew that it was possible to go back into the past and heal it because it’s not fixed. The act of going back alters the memory, there’s no question of it, and it allows you to see it differently and to understand it differently. That changes according to where you are now on the line of life, at whatever point you stop and look back, the looking back will be different. Margaret Atwood said, “We don’t look back along the past like a line, but down through it like water” and I think that that’s a very good distinction because there’s refraction when you look through water. Objects are not at the same distance. Where you put your hand in you can never quite grasp the thing. Our relationship with memory is essentially an invention of a kind. In the myriad of facts or data-bites that happen around any experience some will be prominent, some will fall away. That changes; we remember things differently because we are emphasising things differently according to where we are now. So I think with memoir, so-called, and autobiography, so-called, this isn’t a documentary. It’s a confrontation with the past and it’s a particular kind of relationship with truth. And by truth I mean not a series of tick-box facts, but a full response to a set of circumstances based on something that actually happened.’
As anyone with siblings will already know, what Jeanette was stating at the beginning is true because you will each remember events, but will recall completely different versions of the same events.
Yet both versions are valid, there isn’t a set truth. It’s fascinating to think that you can do that on your own, that you can look at it one way at one time and go back later in life and look at it differently, from a different perspective. ‘I think that that will continue until the very end,’ says Jeanette, ‘I dare say that in twenty-five years time, were I to visit this material again, I’d have something different to say about it. That’s effectively what I’ve done, twenty-six years later I went back into Winterson-world and the books sit side by side but they’re not the same thing. I think people who stick rigidly with the categories of true and false, which are anyhow absurd, struggle with fiction, with the idea of writer as interpreter.’ As she stated in The Powerbook you have to read yourself as a fiction as well as a fact and that you can change the story because you are the story.’ As soon as you know that, it’s very powerful. It’s powerful as a narrative tool, it’s powerful as a life tool. You know I could sell it in California!’ and she grins mischievously.
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In a lot of her writing the narrator is ambiguous or even changes gender. Why does she not fasten on to either male or female and stick with it? ‘It’s more why not? I do look forward to a time, and I don’t suppose it’s going to happen now as we’re getting more reactionary, where people will stop worrying about gender altogether and simply be able to see it as something that you enter the world with, which brings certain advantages and disadvantages in each case. It shouldn’t be in any sense an inhibitor; it should only be a set of possibilities. I’d love it if my godchildren could sometimes love women and sometimes love men. Wouldn’t it be good if you could move back and forward and nobody’s asking questions and you weren’t beating up on yourself, if nobody was worried anymore? Also I like playing with the two ideas and upsetting people’s expectations. We know we read things differently if we see the author is male or female. Immediately we drop onto it all our cultural and personal assumptions so to try and undermine that is a useful exercise and a stimulating one. That’s why in Written on the Body the narrator doesn’t have a gender. In The Stone Gods sometimes Billie is a young sailor on Easter Island, sometimes she’s female. I want that possibility. How do we read that character when it’s got the same name and it’s a different person?’
I raise the question of authors choosing to be known only by initials to try to overcome the prejudice. To say I’m a writer, read my book, take it. ‘There’s an issue about men in particular reading sufficient quantities, if any, of women’s work.’ She goes on to quote Jonathan Franzen’s piece on Edith Wharton, which said how ugly she was and how her success was responsible for her husband’s mental breakdown. ‘It was the most astonishing unconscious piece of misogyny. It’s 2012 and your worry is about whether Edith Wharton were ugly or not!’
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Winterson On Crime Fiction
‘Everybody’s reading crime fiction. It’s really sexy and it’s changed completely. It’s where all the interesting work is being done. Breaking down the boundaries, the genres, playing with the form. It’s thrilling.’
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Jeanette Winterson: Her Writing Life
‘I have a peculiarity. Although I don’t live with my partner – I live alone when in the Cotswolds – even though I have my cottage I can’t work in it. I have to shift from my own domestic environment even though there’s nobody in it. I have a purpose-built studio, which is beautiful. There’s nothing in it except a desk and a wood-burning stove. I could just walk across the lawn to get to it but I don’t. I get on my bicycle and I cycle for fifteen minutes to arrive back at where I started. I do have to do this. I do it whether it’s raining or snowing because now I’m a Pavlov dog and I cannot go to work unless I’ve got on my bicycle and come all the way back round again. Then I’m ready to start. It’s really nice doing it in the mornings, I think things through. I used to be a night owl but I’m not anymore. I prefer to get up and get on with it.’
This of course is not possible while she’s on the road promoting. Jeanette manages to write small pieces and journalism, in fact she has just finished a piece about the Titanic for Radio 4, five fifteen-minute pieces. She’s doing an introduction to Tracey Emin’s new show in the Tate in Margate, and an introduction to a new edition of Orlando.
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Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
by Jeanette Winterson
is published 12 April in paperback by Vintage, price £8.99.
It is also available on Kindle.
CHALLENGING THE STRUCTURES
I begin by challenging her on the fact that she chose to keep her adoptive family’s surname as her writing name. Given the ambivalent feelings that she has was she not tempted to choose her own name, to create her own identity? ‘No, I created my own identity’, she declares, ‘and you know Winterson’s a great name, I’m very comfortable with that. It’s quite an exuberant name, also I love winter and I love the sun in winter, I love that hard orange that comes across the frosty land and so it’s perfect for me.’ We move on to a more general discussion of the fact that women are still expected to change their surnames on point of marriage. Jeanette claims that it’s crucially nuts changing names and one of the worst leftovers of patriarchy. ‘If you asked men to do it they’d have a nervous breakdown.’
In Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? there’s a chapter called ‘English Literature A-Z’ in which the young Jeanette is quite literally starting at A and reading her way through the English Literature section in the Accrington Public Library. The chapter finishes, tantalisingly, with her reading Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas. Did she, I wonder, ever finish her alphabetical marathon? ‘Of course, otherwise I wouldn’t have read Virginia Woolf or Mary Wollstonecraft,’ she laughs. However it wasn’t purely alphabetical. At Oxford she found herself
going over a lot that she had already read. ‘It was a comprehensive course, except for women.’ Jeanette admits that she wouldn’t attempt the alphabetical tour now, ‘In some ways it was a mad project, but in other ways it was completely sane. How else can you know how to read? You might as well start at A.’ I suggest that maybe it was a way of imposing some logic, a system, an element of control in a life where she didn’t have much of either. ‘It was a lovely ordered tranquil space. You simply knew what to do. Often when people are in difficult circumstances of any kind, having a project that brings with it some order is very good for personal sanity and for recovery. It’s important to have something to do, to not flounder about. I think randomness is overrated. Really, structure is good
for us. We like structure, it’s not the same as habit. But you have to keep challenging your own structures.’
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Winterson On Dickens
‘Nobody asked if he was ugly! But a great writer, a remarkable man. Dickens as social worker is just as important as Dickens as writer. I like that idea of the writer being in the centre of life not dangled above it or removed from it.’
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We move on to literacy; in The Stone Gods, one of the most horrifying bits for me is the state-endorsed illiteracy. I ask her whether she feels reading is important given that with all the technology we have we could indeed, as she foresaw, end up with the audio signposts. Chillingly she states that she’s ‘sure that that prophecy is going to come true. If we’re in a utilitarian society, which increasingly we are, it will not be necessary for most people to read at all or certainly above the most basic of levels.’ It does worry her but she also sees literacy as a modern phenomenon. I agree but am fearful as illiteracy was used to keep the masses, and women in particular, ignorant and subjugated. Without the ability to read you forfeit the ability to interpret things for yourself. Jeanette agrees, ‘that’s difficult, because things are manipulated enough as it is. So in a way it’s less to do with the simple fact of being able to read than to do with what reading does to the brain. The skill set that it offers
you so that you have some point of self-reflection or questioning. Reading does force the brain to operate differently. Susan Greenfield’s very good on this, it is an unnatural activity, it’s not something that would develop outside of civilisation. Painting’s early, music’s early, dance is early. Storytelling as an oral tradition is early, which is great. That’s why I have some optimism as even if reading goes, storytelling at a very high level might return. It will be an act of memory. Something very interesting could happen.’ Jeanette admits that this is her at her most optimistic. ‘When record-keeping was not merely a matter of administration, it was an art. The only way to remember something was to make it into a poem, like Beowulf or The Seafarer, because it’s easier if something has a rhythm.’
This takes us back to memory and we talk about Chinese Whispers and how things change. ‘I love that!’ and how there’s no set truth with a capital T but a wonderful variation. So just because people are not reading might not mean that we don’t develop some other form, which could become exhilarating again, of communicating.’ With obvious excitement she begins talking about the rap scene and the poets that are emerging there, and urges me to look up Polar Bear on YouTube who uses non- stop rap poetry but at a very high level. All memorised and the audience often join in, ‘it’s something really ancient that’s happening there, that could be Homer or that could be Beowulf and it’s happening, almost like a Greek chorus. It’s youth culture, it’s coming up, it’s from the street. It’s not coming down from high culture or any organisation, it’s interesting and gives me hope for what might happen. None of these people are going to go away and read Polar Bear, I’m not sure if he’s even in print, but they know his stuff and they can memorise it to each other.’ Her optimism is infectious. I am the parent of three children, none of whom choose to read for pleasure, which sadly is not unusual for their generation, but perhaps they will find their own way to own words. As Jeanette said, ‘the word is in the mouth before it’s on the page.’
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In Lighthousekeeping (my personal favourite of her books) there’s an image of a ghost ship within the new ‘McCloud’ liner. I wondered whether we’re all like that ship, we recreate ourselves, we present ourselves to the world and though we can move on from where we were, that ghost ship of who we were is always there within us. ‘Yes it is there, in other places I talk about it as a fossil record and at the end of The Stone Gods I wrote “everything is imprinted forever with what it once was”. I do believe that. I keep finding different images and metaphors for it so it’s resonant to me. As somebody who has a very particular past, and also a past behind my past, the life I didn’t live because I was adopted, I’m someone who’s completely self- invented. I mean what am I doing here sitting talking to you on the top floor of Random House? I should be in Woolworths or somewhere, if it still existed. So I’m very aware of where I come from. Accrington hasn’t gone away or the library or Mrs Winterson or any of that. Yet on the positive side I think you can remake yourself well so that you can survive the world and contribute to it. But there’s still that you that’s caught in those other places and influences and affects what you are. One of the best things that I understood when I was going crazy was that there was a part of me that was in madness and the moment I knew that it stopped affecting the rest of the territory. There are those ghost ships inside you, those fossil records, and, if they’re known to you, you can live with them like disagreeable or eccentric members of your family.’ I ask whether, that being so, she regrets the past or can accept it as what has made her who she is. ‘No I don’t regret anything. I am sorry for some things obviously, I’d be a psychopath if I were not. I’m well aware of things that I might have done differently but at the same time you can only do what you can do. I think that the key is to be conscious all of the time. Not to act unconsciously, not to robot your way through life. At least if you’re conscious you are then your own reader in so much as it’s a narrative that you’re constructing, you’re both writing it and reading it. I do think that that’s important.’ I raise the idea that in writing Oranges she had put that narrative out there and had lulled herself into a false sense of security because she too had bought into it, so much so that on finding the adoption papers she was genuinely shocked. I wondered if in writing Why Be Happy? she was opening herself to others’ interpretation and whether it would change the way she feels. ‘I don’t think by any means that that’s finished or closed. All of that stuff goes on working. Because I’ve been so very busy since Why Be Happy? came out in October, because it’s been a big success it’s rather run away with everything, I haven’t had time yet to process anything that’s gone on round the publication of this book. I wonder how I’ll feel. I’m going to try and get rid of everybody October, November, December. It will be interesting to see how things feel. I feel I have got somewhere with it. I’m proud of it and I’m pleased with it. It feels right, it was the right moment to do it and it was the right thing to have done. I’m very comfortable with all that. So I’m not questioning any of my decisions. I’m just questioning what it might mean.’
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